I am a 40-year-old man. I work full time and live at home with my mother. I moved out for a while, but a couple of years ago I changed jobs and took a big pay cut, so moved back in. My mum and dad divorced when I was a teenager and she’s been on her own since. She is very controlling, but I know she needs me and I can’t afford to rent a place. When it’s just the two of us it’s okay. She takes care of me. My problem is this: I was seeing a lady for almost a year, and I was in love. She said she was in love with me and things were going well. I brought her home to introduce her to my mother, who hated her. In the end I stopped seeing my girlfriend. My mum is happy, but I’m not. I miss my girlfriend. Would it be wrong to see her behind mum’s back and hope she changes her mind?
This problem first appeared in the Observer
The columnist who replied to this letter in the Observer expressed complete disbelief that you might consider putting your mother’s demands above your own needs for separateness and love outside of your relationship with her. The fact that it might sound objectively ridiculous for you to do this at your age is testament to the grave difficulty you have in separating from you mother and in becoming a man of 40.
You state your age first as people so often seem to do in these letters. When looking at someone from anything like a psychoanalytic point of view age is completely immaterial and only serves a super ego function – that is, to get everyone judging you, deciding where we all think you should be by this age, criticising you for not meeting whatever we individually might imagine the age-appropriate goals might be. In this case, you say your age in order to suggest that you somehow ‘should’ be different by 40, that you feel hopeless at not being like other 40 year olds. However, there are no rules, no prizes and no score sheet – you are where you are, but you have taken the decision, by writing, to at least try to move on.
You give reasons for moving back in with your mum but it sounds as though you know on some level that they are not reason enough in themselves. You say that she has been on her own since her divorce from your father but that isn’t true. She’s had you. She ‘needs’ you and she ‘looks after you’. Even if you were five years old this would not sound like a very healthy dynamic – if she needs you and you know it then something is wrong. It sounds as though you are stuck at the Oedipal phase, victorious over your father, having your mother to yourself but then immediately feeling inadequate since you cannot, in fact, take your father’s place as her lover. Clearly, she allowed you to feel triumph over your father and is treating you emotionally as her husband. Obviously, she is unlikely to want a girlfriend around as that would mean you are being unfaithful to her. You are trapped in a sado-masochistic situation that is damaging both to you and to your mother. She must see on some level that her relationship with you is emotionally incestuous and her guilt makes her care for you even more. You see that she needs you as a husband and your guilt at your own inadequacy in that area makes you try harder to be the man she needs. You can’t be because, emotionally, you are stuck at around 4 or 5 years old in this dynamic.
You understand your situation very well. ‘She is very controlling,’ ‘My mum is happy but I am not.’ It sounds as though you are asking for permission to betray her, to have your real needs met, the needs of a 40 year old man and not an infant. By ‘care for’ you presumably mean cooking and cleaning – tantamount to changing your nappy and feeding you. You probably always needed more care and understanding than that and you certainly do now. You know what you want to do but you also understand the great courage it will take to break away from this controlling woman (you are living in Stokholm Syndrome, totally brainwashed by your captor – I mean this) and live the life you know you want to live. You are right that this will have negative effects on your mother, but she is an adult, as you are, and will have to cope with this. She has bullied you all your life with her apparent (or real) fragility.
In short: Run and don’t look back.
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